Analyzing the danse macabre with Methods Derived from Rudolf Laban’s Movement Theories
Presented to the Department of Dance
Jordan College of the Arts
The Honors Program
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for Graduation Honors
Elizabeth Ann Simoens
Table of Contents
Thesis Reflection and Evaluation: 6
Rhythm scores: 22
DVD Chapters: 23
The purpose of my thesis project was to find a way to create choreography directly from the art and text of the danse macabre, the Dance of Death. I wanted my movement to be created from analysis of the works instead of simply inspired by them. To this end, I used movement analysis techniques based on the work of Rudolph Laban. I created a rhythm score for my piece by analyzing the rhythms of the spoken text. The poses and images in the choreography came from the murals themselves, while the performance of each movement came from analyzing the diagonals within the artwork. I wanted to show that movement analysis techniques can be used on text and visual art to create a performance piece that is taken directly from the material and not just vaguely inspired by it.
It is my strongest belief that everything you learn is connected, and the process of creating my thesis proved this absolutely. My thesis project is the culmination of all my work, both in classes and out, during my time at Butler University and my semester abroad. The six months that I spent in London at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and what I learned there was crucial to my thesis project. In the end I used skills I had no idea would be useful at the time: research skills, costume creation and design, grant writing, music composition, and some I am probably not even aware that I used. I used my classes from my Junior year forward to work on various parts of my thesis. Even before I had decided upon my actual thesis project, I had already completed my basic research. I was able to take all aspects of my undergraduate study and weave them together into a cohesive thesis.
In the fall of 2012, I took a semester abroad and went to the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. During my time there, I was exposed to many methods of movement analysis and they changed how I looked at dance. I began to find ways to describe how people moved in concise statements. I learned a language that helped explain my choreography and how to achieve the movement that I wanted in a clear and concise manner. It also allowed me to look at my own movement and see what types of motion I favored. This process of analysis showed where my work lacked variety.
When I returned to Butler University I had been considering how I might use this new information as part of my thesis. Choreological studies on their own, however, were not quite enough to make an entire thesis project. I needed to find a focus for using what I had learned abroad, and I began to think about other works that I found fascinating that could help me develop a full thesis.
Seven years ago, I saw Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table and was immediately moved by the work. I did not know much about the piece, but I knew that of all the dance I had encountered the work stood out as a favorite. When I entered Butler University as a freshman in the fall of 2010, The Green Table was studied in the “Masterworks of Dance” course, and it still transfixed me. At Laban I had the opportunity to research the piece. I learned that Jooss and Laban had worked together closely and I wanted to learn more about the ballet. What I learned was that the piece was inspired by a trip to Lübeck, Germany, where he saw a mural of the Dance of Death. At that point, I began reading everything I could on the topic. I spent months and months pouring over books, websites, and journal articles, because I found the danse macabre fascinating.
The danse macabre was created in the aftermath of the Black Plague. Europe had lost 30-60% of the population in just three years. The lowest estimate of the devastation is around 75 million deaths. For those who survived the pandemic, the world was a very different place. Those who were still alive had to figure out a way to frame those three years in a way that would allow them to continue their lives. The Christian Church also had a lot to explain, because in a world where that many people can die in an instant, why believe in a god? The Dance of Death served these purposes and more. It took the plague and gave the story a moral. It turned it into a learning experience for the living, the message being “everyone dies, be prepared.” It gave Death a face, a figure between life and the afterlife, unaffiliated with God or Satan.
I considered studying the Dance of Death in more depth, but I wanted to make a choreographic piece and I could not find a way to make it work. It was not until one day when I was reading a line from the John Lydgate’s poem from the English mural that I figured out how to weave everything together into one coherent thesis. The line was “A a a / a worde I can not speke” and the rhythm of the first three sounds was so strong, that I wondered if I could represent that in movement. It sounded like three short impacts and that was the beginning of my thesis. I realized that I could use my interest in Laban’s Movement Theories to create a work based on the Dance of Death. This synthesized my interests into one focused work.
My thesis did not develop without challenges and my process changed as I choreographed my piece, but I am confident that what I created is more than just inspired by the danse macabre. My dance, which was eventually titled ashes, ashes, brought the rhythms in the poetry and the poses in the murals to life through dance.
Thesis Reflection and Evaluation:
My process began with the text. I needed to find people to record the medieval poetry as accurately as possible. Given that the words were written in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this proved difficult. Fortunately, Dr. William Watts, one of the professors at Butler University, specializes in Old English and was able to read portions of John Lydgate’s poem. For the other three languases, I started by contacting the Modern Languages Department at Butler University to see who would be able to help me. I worked with three faculty members on the Spanish text alone. For the French poetry I went to Professor Laurent-Faesi, who speaks fluent French. With the help of a book on how Middle French was pronounced, we were able to make the necessary recordings. The German text was more difficult to have recorded, though I was able to work with Ulf Goebel and finally had all the material that I needed.
I initially completed my background research of the danse macabre for my term paper in my Dance History course. In this way I was able to use my coursework to support my thesis, even though the research would not end up as part of my finished project. This gave me the opportunity to learn about the people that created the Dance of Death, and I wanted to learn all that I could.
After picking my characters and getting the first of the recordings, I began to analyze the English poem and work on choreography. I listened to the track over and over until I had devised a written rhythm score that I felt depicted what I heard. Choreographing to my scores was ultimately incredibly difficult.
I began working on my movement vocabulary in my Choreography 2 class last spring. My dancers were my peers, students in the same year of the Butler dance program, and we began working on the vocabulary for what would become the duet in the final piece. Since I did not know how to explain my rhythm score, I spent a lot of time teaching them the different rhythms in movement and working on perfecting them before we even started on choreography. This was such a long process that my thesis adviser, Professor McGuire, suggested that for my actual piece that I find a way to skip this step; that I teach the movement and coach the dancers to get what I want, without teaching them an entirely new way to think about dancing. This was trial and error, and it was not until I got to my large group piece that I found a method that worked.
Coming up with the movement was very tricky. I did not feel like I had a lot of freedom, because the score was set in stone. I would do a movement and then get stuck, because I had written myself into a corner and could not figure out how to do the next rhythm from the position I put myself. It was very tedious and frustrating coming up with choreography. I also realized at the end of the course, that I had spent so much time working on the vocabulary and the rhythms, I had not looked at the design aspect. The movement was nice, but I had completely over-looked the structure. I also realized that I had made the movement to a constant tempo the entire way through. Even without music, I had kept a steady and slow meter for the whole piece which made the piece seem monotonous. These were the problems that I needed to fix in the fall.
This past fall, I began my Choreography 3 course, during which I created my final Thesis piece. As part of the course I had to audition dancers and come up with a small and large group piece. Because I was working on my thesis project, I had to finish all three movements of my work. I also wanted to start working on the production side of my piece, creating costumes and the look I would ultimately use. But first I had to simply create the work itself.
When selecting my dancers I had to decide whether or not to keep the piece all female, or to add men to my cast. When it came down to it, I realized that having only women created a ritualistic aspect. It made sense to stay with a female cast. I did not want to confuse my message with the addition of men. Having a man be Death in a partnering sequence with a woman would have added another layer to the story that I did not want. I wanted to keep the focus on the relationship between Death and the Dying, having men in the piece would have confused that.
I looked for dancers who could accurately perform specific movement rhythms without them being explained to them. I had spent a lot of time with my first dancers explaining each rhythm and figuring out how to do them properly, and I wanted to see if I could bypass that step. I found that I was the only person who really needed to know the rhythm score, and as long as I was able to reference it and show what I wanted, the dancers were fine. I also needed dancers who would be able to perform strong movements and move with abandon. Both of those are difficult for classically trained dancers to perform and I was not going to be able to teach them how to do that in the time allotted.
The structure of my piece was based on the idea of masses dying during the Black Death. I wanted to start with a stage full of people and end with a solo by my Big Death played by Renee Roberts. This was to give the audience the experience of mass deaths. I planned to start my piece with a group of ten dancers, have two in the next movement, and then only one in the final piece.
I began the semester by working on my duet. I had completed the analysis the previous semester and the movement vocabulary based on the text. The duet that I had completed in the spring was lacking in design, and the message was not clear. I needed to work on the relationship between the two figures, while also making the story clear. I also wanted to add an element of partnering to the duet, so that the work was more of a conversation between Death and the Dying. To this end I created more movement using different parts of the same paragraph, and I allowed myself to take only the parts that worked from the previous duet. So the final piece is not the exact rhythm score that I created, as some parts are repeated and it is not in the same order as the poetry.
At this point the overall design worked, but the story still needed clarification. I had to go through each part of the dance and figure out if the conversation made sense. Defining the characters in each moment was incredibly helpful. I had been dissatisfied with the piece, but once the story became clear, it suddenly made the choreography much stronger. I was able to carry that work into creating the next two movements, which helped define the roles from the very beginning.
When I started my large group piece, I decided to change my process. For the duet I had only used the text from the Dying and not the whole conversation. I wanted to change that for the large group and use Death’s portion as well. For this section I used two different parts of the poetry, the Hermit from the Spanish poem danza de la muerte and the Lover from the French poem Danse macabre de Guyot Marchant. I chose these two characters because they have very different attitudes towards dying. The Hermit has lived a long and difficult life, and he welcomes Death as a blessing. Death is sympathetic to the Hermit’s plight and nearly shows kindness towards him. The Lover, on the other hand, is in the prime of his life and has no intention of dying. He clings to life and love, albeit unsuccessfully. Death does not treat the Lover with kindness, but mocks him instead. The differences between the two interactions were so severe that I thought they would make a nice contrast for the large group piece.
I split my dancers into two groups, the Dying and Death and gave each group their half of the conversation. Each dancer then came up with their own movement based upon what they heard in the text. I realized that they were able to pick up on the more extreme rhythms in the text, without my having to explain what the rhythms were. At the end of each session I videotaped the material that had been created. I then watched it over and over again to find the movements that were already the closest to the analysis that I had done. This process allowed me to have movement that was inspired by the sound and the story, that I could then mold to fit my movement score, without overwhelming my dancers with intellectual analysis. In the end this was much more successful than my duet at accomplishing the feel of my piece. I was no longer so focused on the intellectual side of my process, and was able to allow myself more creativity and freedom, while still being true to my thesis idea.
For the large group piece, in the first movement, I wanted to use round dances to evoke a ritualistic feel. It is believed that when the Dance of Death was performed, that the accompanying dances were probably round dances. I started the piece with the living circling the group of Deaths who had decided on their victims. Later on in the work I had all of the dancers circling the Big Death and her partner, as the final chase before the Dying had their last moments.
For the final solo, I used the German text of the Preacher, one of the characters in the Dance of Death, addressing the audience and all the characters. I wanted something strong for the Death solo and the German poetry was perfect for my purpose. I chose to have Death start upstage out of the light because I wanted to get across the idea that death was unexpected and could strike at any time.
At the last moment, I decided to change the final solo. I wanted to add the rest of the cast upstage and have the Dying die at different points throughout the solo. I had them facing upstage so that they would be faceless. I did not want them to be individuals, but nameless dying people. This decision was actually inspired by my favorite quote from the Dance of Death by John Lydgate. “Who lengest leueth / moste shal suffre wo.” Which basically means, “He who lives the longest will suffer the most.” That was why I had my dancers doing an excruciatingly slow side bend until it was their time to “die” making the last person standing the one who suffered the most.
A week before my piece was performed one of my dancers fell ill and I had to take her out of the piece. Fortunately, she was only in the first section, or things would have been very complicated. I had two options at that point, either replace her or change the choreography. With a week to the show it seemed wiser to alter the choreography to work without the tenth dancer. Fortunately, the dancer was partnered with the Big Death soloist, so I rearranged the piece and put the Big Death center stage for the whole movement. I think this actually worked to my advantage. With the Big Death in the center, it looked like she was controlling the movements of the other dancers. This change also set up the ending because it gave her role more significance than before.
Finding the music for my piece was a difficult process, partly because what I wanted to use did not exist. I wanted a piece of music that wove the poetry of the Dance of Death into a chorus of disembodied voices, with different ones coming to the forefront throughout the work. Because my choreography was set to the rhythm of the text, I did not need music to dictate my work. I just wanted something to set a somber tone. I knew I wanted spoken text woven into the music.
When looking at different pieces of music, I was most concerned that they not “sentimentalize” my work. For me the Dance of Death is not an emotional response to the Black Plague, but a simple statement of fact. I did not want the music to add a layer of unnecessary emotion on top of my choreography. I was actually happy with the piece in silence, but I learned that music is a very large part of the audience experience, and removing it entirely makes it difficult for the viewer to remain engaged.
While still searching for music I began composing my own accompaniment for the piece, which was later swapped for something else. I took the recordings of the four different sections from the poetry and created a work where they rose and fell over each other. I spent many hours on it and worked with the Butler University Composition faculty to create a piece that I thought worked for my duet. It was a very nerve-wracking process, but I had done some composition work at Butler and at Laban, so I at least knew how to use the software. It was yet another moment where seemingly unrelated skills worked their way into my thesis project.
I did not end up sticking with the piece I had composed, however, as it did not end up serving the production. It turned out that without knowing what the words meant the poetry did not have enough power to gain the viewer’s attention. The words just became sounds that did not convey the somber tone of the piece. I am glad that I tried to create the music because from the feedback I learned that even though the words worked for me, even an informed audience member was going to be confused by them and thus distracted from my piece. I also realized that it would take someone with real compositional skill to accomplish the feel that I wanted. I had then considered having live readings of the text during my piece, but after trying to work out how to weave the text into the piece in a coherent fashion, I decided that it would end up as a distraction and not further my work.
After several meetings with Professor Felice of Butler University’s Composition Department, we finally found music that worked. Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia had vocals and the music had the correct tone for my choreography. The words were not from the Dance of Death poetry, but the whispered text was very powerful. Because the majority of the words could not be understood the effect was perfect. I had to edit the length of the music, but I had finally found something that worked. I was particularly happy because I was able to fade into the second and third movements with whispered vocals.
I wanted to create costumes that would enhance my work and that would take the piece to a new level. While I was in London I had the idea for a simple dress. I had seen a video of Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice and fell in love with the black mesh dresses and wanted to make one of my own. When I started working on my thesis, I thought that it would work very well with my piece, but I did not know if I was going to be able to afford to make that many costumes. I started with one last spring and worked with the Costume Mistress for Butler Ballet, Kathleen Egan, to create my pattern and construct the first dress.
Because of that dress, I ended up receiving a $500 grant from the Undergraduate Research Committee to create costumes for my thesis project. I had already considered creating the dresses for my Dying dancers, but I decided that I needed something different for the Deaths. With my costume designer, Erica Johnston, I came up with simple black unitards with skeletal panels of black mesh. I wanted the design to evoke the look of the death figures in the mural, without getting too literal. Working together we came up with a design for the back of the unitards that was reminiscent of a spine, ribcage and scapula. We added more details to the front and shoulders of the Big Death’s costume, to set her apart and to highlight her crouching movements at the beginning of her solo.
The grant also allowed me to pay Ms. Johnston to create the other nine costumes, which was of great importance because I did not have the time and expertise to construct all of the costumes in time. I also had to decide upon hair and makeup for the piece. I chose to do slight skeletal makeup for the Deaths and keep the Dying with very slightly pink makeup.
Here is the full rhythm score that I used to create the vocabulary for the duet. The text is from John Lydgate’s poem on the Dance of Death. I have included the text below for ease of reading.
A a a / a worde I can not speke
I am so ȝonge / I was bore ȝisterdai
Dethe is so hasti / on me to be wreke
And liste no lenger / to make no delai
I cam but now / and now I go my wai
Of me no more / no tale shal be tolde
The wille of god / no man with-stonde mai
As sone dyeth / a ȝonge man as an olde.
Chapter 1: William Watts reading a section from John Lydgate’s The Dance of Death
Chapter 2: Music Composed by Elizabeth Simoens
Chapter 3: Final Choreographic Work, ashes, ashes
I would like to acknowledge the following people for their assistance in the research phase of my thesis:
Rosemary Brandt, Dr. Terri Carney, Kathleen Egan, Frank Felice,
Eileen Frazer, Ulf Goebel, Erica Johnston, Paul Kanczuzewski,
Stephan Laurent-Faesi, Bret Mattingly, Jr., Susan McGuire,
Cynthia Pratt, Dr. Juan Pablo Rodriguez Prieto, Cathy Sipe
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